Jenny Baker
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Resources Create a “Productive Anywhere” Workforce: What We Learned and Confirmed About the Job Demands-Resources Model

Gabriela (Gabby) Burlacu and Kelly Monahan, Accenture Research

It is no secret that the events of the past year and a half have upended the lives of all individuals. But for researchers, perhaps the most interesting ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are those that had an impact at scale, and that will continue to influence our lives for years to come. Although only some of us had experience with the virus itself (thank goodness), all of us experienced dramatic changes in how we work. As we emerge into a postpandemic world, many are asking what the future of work will look like.

For some, resuming a sense of normalcy is the top priority. Business leaders of Goldman SachsFacebook, and Amazon join a growing list of people who are enthusiastically planning the return of their workers to an on-site location, citing culture and collaboration as key reasons for this. Others, like Zillow,  have come to realize that remote work isn’t the impossible arrangement it once seemed, and they have committed to continuing to allow workers to work off site. Which is the best way? In an ongoing war for talent, what approaches are going to attract and retain the best?

Accenture’s Future of Work 2021 study surveyed over 9,000 global workers in March of 2021, across 11 countries and 10 industries, to learn more about how people experienced work during the pandemic and how they perceive the opportunities and possibilities available to them in the future of work. We analyzed response tendencies across 140 questions and found that overall, 31% of people are feeling fatigued, negative, and pessimistic, and an additional 15% are feeling disconnected and disengaged. Clearly as we emerge from the worst of the physical aspects of COVID-19, the possibility of a mental health crisis is not far behind. But we were able to classify 42% of workers as “thriving”—despite the negative events of the preceding year, they had a predominantly energized and optimistic mindset regarding the future of work.

Our initial aim was to find support for companies taking either of the popular emerging approaches: bringing people back to an on-site location (like an office) or enabling people to continue working remotely. Key drivers influencing our respondents’ desire to work on-site included access to better technology than was possible at home, increased opportunity to collaborate with colleagues face to face, and an appreciation for the routine that going on-site creates. Key drivers influencing a desire to work remotely included safety concerns, increased quality of life, and the freedom to structure one’s day and to take productive breaks as needed. Predictors of productivity in each physical location also differed: When people reported strong social relationships at work and more supportive leadership, they were more likely to say they could be more productive on-site; when people reported greater job autonomy, greater organizational agility, and greater work–life enhancement, they were more likely to say they could primarily be productive remotely. A hybrid work model, wherein individuals can work remotely between 25% and 75% of the time, was the most popular: 83% of global workers said this would be optimal for them in the future of work.

But here we immediately recognized the impossible situation organizations find themselves in. First, giving people the freedom to work both on-site and remotely requires companies to create engaging, productive, and equitable experiences in both physical locations when they’ve been challenged in the past to create this simply for one. Second, a sweeping “future of work is hybrid” statement completely leaves behind our essential workers for whom remote work will never be possible—this was approximately 25% of our sample—regardless of what they felt would be optimal in the future. Third, there were demographic predictors of desiring more on-site versus remote work as well, with younger and male employees preferring on-site and older, female employees preferring remote work, making it all the more critical to create equivalent experiences and opportunities across all workers.

In short, getting to the “perfect” hybrid model is going to be all but impossible for organizations. What may make more sense is to focus less on optimizing each physical location and more on the elements that create worker productivity, resilience, and health, regardless of where people work.

Through this study, we identified two additional clusters of workers beyond the original two we had planned to focus on (the original two being those that desire more on-site work, and those that desire more remote work). One of these clusters comprised about 8% of our sample. This group felt they could be productive in neither location. They were simply frustrated and felt inefficient, wherever the future of work would be. But the other cluster, which comprised about 40% of our sample, felt they could be productive anywhere in the future of work. It did not matter whether work would happen on-site or remotely; they were confident in and positive about their ability to get the job done.

As we dug into these two groups to better understand how they came to be in their respective situations, our initial hypothesis was that the stress and burnout associated with the pandemic must have impacted some more than others. Although this is probably true, it was not a key factor in differentiating whether someone believed that they could be productive in both on-site and remote locations, or not at all. Our “productive nowhere” and “productive everywhere” groups experienced similar levels of work stressors. They were both burned out, and both groups had experienced some degree of interpersonal issues at work—in fact, our “productive everywhere” group had experienced higher levels of microaggressions. What really differentiated this group was the resources their organizations had enabled for them. When people were equipped with more autonomy, more supportive leadership, higher levels of digital skills, more learning opportunities, greater organizational agility, and effective health policies, they thrived and were much more likely to be resilient and to feel “productive anywhere” in the future of work.

This was surprising for a lot of our stakeholders, but not for those of us who remembered our graduate school comprehensive exams. We knew that in 2007 Arnold Bakker and Evangeline Demerouti developed the widely cited job demands-resources model. In this model it was suggested that all work comes with some degree of stress, or demands. But job resources can act as a buffer, dampening the negative effect of those demands. With enough resources, people can thrive even in very stressful jobs. This seeks to explain how some people can stand to work in high-stress environments for a long period of time—they are equipped with resources that help offset the negative aspects of those environments. 

The job demands-resources theory has been validated across job types and in many different countries. Now we have evidence of it here, in our Accenture survey study that aims to give business leaders some insight as they make decisions regarding the future of work.

This suggests to us first that the companies best positioned to attract and retain talent as we enter the future of work will be those that optimize resources for all workers, regardless of where they are asked to physically come to work. But it also suggests that organizational psychology theory and practice have tremendous value in helping companies make informed, scientifically driven decisions in the coming months and years. We know work is likely changed forever and that a full return to the approaches and policies in place prior to 2019 will not be effective. But I-O psychology draws from decades of knowledge about human behavior, motivation, and productivity, all of which are more relevant than ever as business leaders face tough decisions around how to facilitate that motivation and productivity in a drastically changed world. I-O psychologists, the time is now to showcase your voice and expertise to help shape the future of work. 

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